A federal judge today gave a lighter sentence than the government requested to Eva Lee, a suspended professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) who has pleaded guilty to making false statements about her federal grant.
The United States “needs you to help us” fight the coronavirus pandemic, District Court Judge Steve Jones said in rejecting the prosecution’s request that Lee be immediately confined to her home for 8 months. Instead, Jones sentenced Lee to 60 days of home confinement and delayed its start until the spring of 2021. “Society would not benefit from [you serving] 8 months of home confinement now,” Jones told Lee during a hearing this morning in Atlanta, which was conducted via Zoom.
Lee, an applied mathematician who has developed computer models to improve health care and is working with several federal agencies on the country’s response to the pandemic, admitted in December 2019 to misrepresenting information on a grant report to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and then lying to agents investigating her handling of the $40,000 award. She told Jones she didn’t understand the reporting requirements and said the university failed to provide her with the necessary administrative support. But she said she also recognizes that she broke the law.
“I stand before you to apologize for the mistakes that I have made and to promise you that it will never happen again,” Lee told the judge. “Please forgive me.”
Before announcing his decision, the judge said he was very impressed by what Lee has accomplished in improving health care delivery, working with minority students, and training the next generation of scientists. And he admitted that those important contributions to society factored into his decision.
“You are one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever read about,” Jones said, referring to the statements submitted on her behalf by dozens of character witnesses, some of whom also testified at today’s hearing. “You’re playing a major part in how America will overcome this pandemic, including how it should distribute the vaccine.” Jones also cited her role in advising school systems and universities in what they need to do to reopen safely.
At the same time, Jones reminded Lee that what she described as mistakes are criminal offenses that will stay with her forever.
“What you did was wrong,” Jones told her. “When they asked you a straight question, you could have given a truthful answer. But you lied to those agents, and that stood out to me.”
As a result of her behavior, Jones added, “You will be a convicted felon. And that will remain on your record. You need to be able to help the country. But the court cannot ignore the felony.”
Lee’s lawyer, Wilmer “Buddy” Parker, had asked the judge for what’s known as “straight probation,” with no home confinement, for some period less than 1 year. Jones rejected that request, but his decision suggests he agreed with Parker’s argument that any restrictions placed on Lee during her home confinement next spring should be minimal.
“You will not be on an ankle monitor,” Jones told Lee, “and you will be free to go about your business, to work, to the store, to religious services, without your location being monitored.” Jones said Lee would also be free to travel to scientific conferences—“just let your probation officer know ahead of time, and they will work with you.”
After the hearing, Parker said the terms of the home confinement were the equivalent of a “night curfew.” Lee’s movements won’t be otherwise restricted, he noted, and she will be free to continue her work with several federal agencies.
However, Georgia Tech officials have still barred Lee from being on campus and having access to computers that house her modeling software. University officials had said previously they were awaiting her sentencing before moving forward with an inquiry into whether she should be stripped of tenure and fired.
At the hearing, Georgia Tech biochemical engineer Mark Prausnitz described Lee’s actions as “administrative errors that should have been corrected” by the university’s sponsored research office before they triggered an NSF investigation. Last spring, a university spokesperson said that Georgia Tech disagrees with Lee’s claim that she was provided with inadequate administrative help.
*Correction 13 August, 12:25 p.m.: The headline and third paragraph of this story have been modified to more accurately describe the criminal charges in the case.